Boardroom shuffle - The Face #24 April 1982

Heaven 17 demerge as BEF goes public. Paul Tickell keeps company with Marsh and Ware.

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Between them Ian Craig Marsh and Martyn Ware play synths, sax and piano; sing; and programme computers and Linn drums. They're also producers, going around putting their stamp on artefacts - BEF : short for the British Electric Foundation.

Last year they brought you "Music For Stowaways", a cassette of dissident muzak and ambient sounds, featuring such titles as "Music To Kill Your Parents By". They were also the production team (a to-week quickie job) behind Hot Gossip's "Geisha Boys And Temple Girls" album, its title taken from a track on Heaven 17's "Penthouse And Pavement" album. Heaven 17, with Glenn Gregory employed as vocalist, represent yet another layer to the Foundation, and they'll be releasing a new product later this year.

For the moment, though, it's BEF itself which is in the limelight with an album whose title is cheekily inspired by a shirt advert, "Music Of Quality And Distinction" s consciously secondhand in other ways, being a collection of mainly Sixties material performed by a variety of artists, old and new.

Who nearly appeared on the record (produced and programmed of course by Marsh and Ware, who also play on it with back-up of members of Beggar And Co, plus Nick Plytas on keyboards, not to mention Hank Marvin on electric and John Foxx on acoustic guitar) makes an interesting tale in itself.

Martyn Ware: "There were several people we approached and declined - Bowie, Scott Walker, Davey Jones of The Monkees... We wanted Bowie to do 'Ball Of Confusion' and I'm still convinced that if he'd have heard the backing track he would have done it. It's so hard to get through to him directly."

"Paul McCartney actually got as far as listening to the tapes: we didn't have anything specifically in mind for him. Dusty Springfield we got into contact with, but too late. Amanda Lear we contacted but didn't use: she only wanted to do 'Walk On The Wild Side', but since we already had a Lou Reed song..."

Martyn is referring to Glenn Gregory's version of "Perfect Day". The Heaven 17 singer also contributes an astounding atmospheric rendering of Glen Campbell's "Wichita Lineman". Billy Mackenzie of The Associates is on magnificent form too with Roy Orbison's "It's Over" and Bowie's "Secret Life Of Arabia".

"Martyn: "It's one of the few songs that Bowie never really got it down on. The criterion for the album...there was no master plan...was to use songs we thought we could improve on. I personally like a lot of Jacksons material but there was no way we were ever going to surpass what they've done."

I don't think that Gary Glitter's "Suspicious Minds" is an improvement on Elvis, though it does capture some of the spirit of glam days gone by. Remarkably it's the first time Gary and the Glitter Band have ever been on vinyl together: the boys played on their own solo material and backed - and still back - him live, but those early records were mainly the work of Gary and producer Mike Leander.

Martyn assumes me that Paula Yates' "These Boots Are Made For Walking" is an improvement on Nancy Sinatra, and stresses that "fond memories" often mask how "appalling" some of those Sixties originals were.

"You've got to bear in mind that a lot of the people who'll hopefully buy this record won't even have heard of some of the tracks. But we're old bastards; it's part of our youth: we know about these things."

Some of Martyn's first musical memories may be of Paul Jones singing direct and soulful on Manfred Mann's early R&B and pop material. To their credit BEF get Jones to sound like that on R. Dean Taylor's "There's A Ghost In My House", a far cry from his current laboured work with The Blues Band. Mind, Jones is no stranger to versions: lan Craig Marsh and Martyn remember his kitsch crooning of "Pretty Vacant" several years ago.

Won't some parts of "Music Of Quality And Distinction" be seen as kitsch, even pieces of camp -- Bernie Nolan doing The Supremes "You Keep Me Hanging On", for example.

"I think that's a very elitist viewpoint. If The Nolans do a good song and it's produced well, I don't think it should be worth any less than what, say, Haircut 100 do. You've got to break down these barriers of ignorance: that's what this album's about -- as well as an experiment in pop music. Quite frankly, Bernie has a very good voice... like a young Michael Jackson; and of all the vocalists we used she was the most professional in terms of the number of takes and the technical side."

As Martyn tells me this and plays me the near enough completed tapes for the album at Virgin HQ, he has yet to experience Tina Turner in the studio. She's flying in specially the-following day to put the vocal on "Ball Of Confusion". James Brown had been set to do that one and BEF had been on the point of going.over to Atlanta to record there. But Brown started to demand "absolutely ridiculous royalties", as lan puts it, and the deal was called off. Negotiations and contracts surrounding the album have proved nightmarish with all the artists being on different labels, and the problem of what can and can't be released as a Single still hasn't been fully resolved. However, Martyn envisages a stream of 45s ("It's not like overkill with all the different vocalists") and the first of them will be Sandie Shaw's stunning rendition of "Anyone Who Had A Heart"

With all the personnel -on "Quality And Distinction" and the various organizational and musical complexities which-have gone into its making, it must have been quite an expensive album to do.

Martyn: "No, about half as much as 'Dare'."


Ah, "Dare". The constant reference point for lan and Martyn as ex-members of the old Human League {who weren't averse to the odd cover version, witness their adventure with Gary Glitter's "Rock'N'Roll" and later a Gordon's gin jingle) is the new Human League. It's unavoidable: they share the same record label, Virgin, and the League's manager Bob Last is a director and shareholder in BEF as well as its business adviser.

Martyn: "If there are heavy negotiations to be done, we ask him in. In terms of the music business we're still quite naive -- but learning fast."

When the Human League split down the middle over 18 months ago, Last must've felt some- what torn during the negotiations which attempted to settle the dispute as to which half should retain the band name. In the end Craig Marsh and Ware settled for a compensation fee and will be getting one per cent each of the royalties from "Dare". Should turn out to be a tidy sum?

Martyn: "It's no more than we deserve. Looking back I think we should've bargained harder, not as a matter of greed but principle -- for two and half years of poverty and hard work."

The Human League back catalogue, the product of those years of toil and obscurity, lan and Martyn now regard, as the advertisement on the inner sleeve of "Penthouse And Pavement" attests, as a kind of first phase in the BEF project.

Gentle bitching follows as they chide Phil Oakey for passing off-hand comments about this previous work and for putting pressure on Virgin, they claim, not to release material by The Future, a band which lan and Martyn were in with

Adi Newton of Clock DVA in 1977 and whose work BEF want to put out as a further example of their pre-history There's a sense in which BEF want to have it both ways, for after Martyn castigates Oakey for disowning early League stuff, he himself goes on to rail against the version of "Being Boiled" recently raked up by EMI

"The fact that it got to No. 6 has destroyed whatever faith I had in the singles market. It was recorded for 2.50p on a Sony two-track with no mixing or anything."

BEF, in their Heaven 17 guise, have not had the singles success which many people, especially the critics, have promised them. "Groove Thang" should've done better; "Play To Win" got stuck in the 50s; and "Penthouse And Pavement" flopped. The actual "Penthouse" album, though, went silver a while back and still shows in the charts; it's also starting to do good business in Europe, especially Germany.

Not surprisingly, BEF feel that what success they have had has been overlooked because of the shadow cast by that idol -- "Philip" as they call him.

Martyn: "It's a Phenomenon. Who could have predicted that -- certainly not the League."

Ian: "I think they thought they’d be a Top 20 act but not absolutely massive.

In detail Ian considers the first three League singles after the split and speculates that their success is in direct proportion to the amount of work done on them by produce Martin Rushent at his Genetic Studios near Reading He didn't have a hand in "Boys And Girls" so we know what happened to thai; "Sound Of The Crowd' he did some work on, Ian surmises, but the band didn't break really big till the full Rushent treatment" on "Love Action' You know the story of the following singles and 'Dare’.

Photo 1982

Martyn: "It's a very good album, great songs, but in my mind if Rushent split with the band he could impart their sound to any band on earth. He programmes everything on his gear and gets minute credit for that. The League put him in the background, even though in many way he's more a member of the band than Burden, Callis, and the girls. He's a step up from the traditional producer's role -- a producer artist."

Undoubtedly Rushent has worked wonders with the League, but he himself has gone down (in the NME) as saying that this wouldn't have been possible without a host of good ideas, most of them from Oakey. Furthermore, David Rhodes (freelance guitarist with Japan and Peter Gabriel and someone who's recently worked on a debut solo single at Genetic) attests that Rushent played him the league's 8-track demos for "Dare" which, though the producer didn't work on them, are mighty close to the finished record.


BEF's bitching (love it) is more than that, it's also in degraded form a variation on their own theory of production. They over-write Rushent's role in the League's success, partly because they'd like to see themselves as they describe him -- producers as artists, as authors. Not that BEF are arty: for example, their suited executive image may be something of a cliche (remember PiL three years ago dressed for the boardroom and stressing their relationship to Virgin as company to company, not band to company) but it does have its purpose, questioning the relations between themselves and their audience, between producers and consumers, and implying that any artistic value derives from a form of labour and hence is very much part of the world of business and economics.

Martyn: "We're saying that the antique image of rock musicians as people of the people or street level, or tortured artists sitting in garrets, is a load of bollocks. We're stripping away the veneer of pseudo-mysticism that surrounds the artist and saying -- look, if you work with a record company, you create music to make a living out of it, and to satisfy your own artistic worth. The best and least hypocritical way of doing that is to act as a business.

"It's more honest that the record companies don't exist' or 'record companies are ripping us off' attitudes and the John Peel Show type of music that goes with these attitudes -- straight from psyche onto vinyl with no filtering or construction in between."

"Music Of Quality And Distinction" as a tower of pop constructivism?

Martyn: "One derogatory comment made about us is that we assemble things like a jigsaw. Absolutely right we do! I think it shows some intellectual awareness of the way things effect people emotionally."

In rightly blasting apart mystificatory notions of production, isn't there the danger of lapsing into their opposite, a kind of spikey cynicism which finds it difficult to cope with emotion, passion?

"Passion is an old-fashioned concept in as much as theoretically in the rock world if you stick five musicians in a studio, then they lay something down and some special magic is supposed to be involved in them bouncing off each other.

"I'd say that the way we've constructed this album, there's a different sort of bouncing off, in as much as there's pressure on the individual in the studio doing over-dubs and listening to the best of what other people have done so that they've got to excel themselves and surpass hat they hear. They can't sit back on a bass line and let someone else do the work; the pressure's on..."

"Quality And Distinction" was mainly "pressureised" at John Foxx's new studio in London EC2. lan found its homely atmosphere and bright olour scheme infinitely preferable as a working environment to the majority of studios with "their daunting claustrophobic hessian, stone, and cork, and great speakers facing down on you like in a space capsule -- you go crackers after two weeks."

Martyn agrees, adding that what he dislikes about most big studios are "stupid distractions like Space Invader machines, offensive and blase engineers who don't treat you like a human being unless you're A Rock Star."

Martyn's abhorrence of the rock elite and their studio lackeys exists on an artistic as well as a personal level. This is why BEF do their mixing in small studio speakers and not the huge Tannoys -- on behalf of the masses.

Ian: "Albums are never going to sound like they did in the studio unless you go along there and play them on the big speakers - or unless you're a millionaire with an expensive system and an acoustically balanced room. Most people have much smaller systems with less bass..."

Martyn: "So the mixing on this album is geared towards them and to sounding... a very difficult thing to achieve... better on radio, in mono."

These sound like the sort of production tactics which Nick Lowe has advocated before, inspired by Phil Spector of course. Significantly, some of the cuts on "Quality And Distinction" have a Spectorish feel: drums are programmed like tympani and the electronics come over not as a treatment of a band line-up but a whole orchestra. In fact, "Anyone Who Has A Heart" does use a small orchestra.

Martyn: "The style we've used on the album isn't the current one, but it's much easier to draw the listener in to the mood of a track if dynamically it moves as an aural lump, as waves - a very Spectorish thing to do."

BEF first started to work towards this "wet" sound with the Hot Gossip album, notably on their version of the old Human League song "Circus Of Death". Martyn thinks that the album has been badly neglected. By comparison the Heaven 17 album has a very "dry" sound, which is one reason why "The Height Of The Fighting" was practically re-recorded for its recent singles release-to give it that fuller, distinctive quality.

"With today's technology you can afford to make things sound a bit wetter, because the quality of digital reverberation is so crystal clear that you still get clarity of instruments. In Spector's day it was like a big mush, like a train going through a tunnel."

BEF aim to create an altogether more streamlined, modern vehicle and with "Music Of Quality And Distinction" it's on the tracks and ready to move.